The Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies

Lessons From History


It seems to me that most Britons or other Europeans to do not understand the emotional attachment that Trieste has for most Slovenes over the age of 60. On the other hand most Slovenes do not understand the British position in May 1945 which had a global perspective.

In addition the mass of the population of former Yugoslavia for 45 years was fed Tito-communist propaganda. The West was complicit in this because after the early 1950s it became Cold War policy to be friendly to Tito and not to mention his Bolshevik past or his crimes. It was, it seems, also Western policy not to mention the huge subsidies and support that Yugoslavia needed because the system failed regularly, and which allowed Tito to strut the world stage and claim his version of communism was the future. Of course once the subsidies stopped the economy collapsed again, as did the non-aligned movement.

In the middle of World War II Churchill was anxious to promote the greatest resistance possible in the occupied lands which meant that with the Americans both sent large amounts of military supplies to the Soviet Union, and gave support to guerrilla movements such as the French Maquis, Polish Home Army and in all other occupied countries. In Yugoslavia resistance was at first the Mihaijlovic Cetniks after the German invasion of April 1941.

Between the two world wars the Italians, who had taken over the westernmost Slovene lands of Austria-Hungary, pursued a policy of Italianisation, or as the Italians called it deslavification. There was violence against the resident Slovenes especially in Trieste and many became refugees and settled in Yugoslavia. A little remembered event was the refugees in Bled were given work by the monarchy to build Vila Bled, which was taken over 30 years later by Tito. So Trieste became Italian after over 500 years under the Habsburgs, and the Slovene language was banned from public use. It was little wonder that the first militant anti-fascist organisation TIGR (Revolucionarna organizacija Julijske krajine T.I.G.R) was Slovene and it began bomb attacks.

It is therefore easy to understand that not only did the Slovenes have a good case for the return of Trieste to Slovene lands but they were part of the Allies struggle against Fascism.

So what went wrong and why did Trieste never ‘come home’. Even the original Roman name of the city is connected with the Slovene language – Tergeste – or market place (perhaps Trg mesto).

After the invasion of Yugoslavia by Germany in April 1941 resistance was led by General Mihailovic. This was not supported by the communists under orders from Stalin who had a non-aggression pact with the Germans. In fact they as a result were sympathetic at this time to the invaders. Churchill and the British Government of course supported the Mihailovic resistance against the Nazis.

After the invasion in June 1941 of the USSR the communists were ordered by Moscow to resist the Germans. The leader as most know was Josip Broz, known as Tito, who was paid by Russia to be the party’s underground organiser. This Tito led resistance did not receive a lot of support from the British at the beginning, partly because they did not know what was going on and partly uncertainty about civil war between resistance groups. Later at the beginning of 1944 on the basis of reported lack of action by Mihailovic and false reports Churchill switched all his support behind Tito. It was not known at the time that the falsified reports were made by the NKVD collaborator, the British Major James Klugmann, who was a friend of Tito from their days in Paris in  the 1930s. The support in arms and supplies was invaluable to Tito, as was the encouragement earlier to surrendering Italians in 1943 to hand over their arms to the Partisans. The firepower meant that almost certainly the communist would win the civil war with the anti-communists.

As Yugoslavia was slowly freed from German control in 1944 and into 1945 the agreement amongst the Allies was for the pre WWII borders to be respected and the Allies would at peace talks settle the post war borders.

Tito, under presumed Russian encouragement, decided on a land grab and to occupy Carinthia and Giulia Venezia. Churchill’s first suspicion was aroused when Tito flew from the island of Vis secretly to Moscow at the end of September 1944.  This was after extensive negotiations in Italy for a joint Partisan-Royalist government after the war ended. Churchill mentioned this in a top secret message to the British Ambassador in Washington in April 1945 just after Tito signed a Friendship Treaty with Moscow. (See copy of Archive attached).

It became quite clear that Tito would not stop at the agreed borders but try to grab territory. So a race ensured to get Allied troops into Trieste and Carinthia.  The partisans entered Trieste on the morning of the 1st May 1945 and the New Zealanders on the afternoon to receive the surrender of the German garrison. All supplies were stopped to Tito who was now seen to be Stalin’s man (See copy of archive message Churchill to Field Marshal Alexander attached) and preparations made to eject his forces. President Truman came down firmly for ejection even if it meant an outbreak of hostilities. Suggested reading for the details of this is the book ‘Hoodwinking Churchill’ by Peter Batty (available on Amazon).

There was a lot of concern as to what Soviet reactions might be, but Stalin knew the US had the atomic bomb and he would not risk a war so he told Tito to leave Trieste and also Carinthia.

The local situation in Trieste settled into a stalemate with the City under Allied control and the surroundings under Yugoslav control.

This is now acknowledged by many historians as the beginning of the Cold War. We also now know that Stalin had, through the Politburo in 1944, ordered the Stavka – The Military High Command HQ of the USSR – to prepare a plan for invasion of France and Germany. Stalin however knew of the US atomic bomb and was very cautious so this never materialised. Other factors were the need for the US and the United Kingdom to transfer troops to the Far East to finish off the Japanese and to get to grips with economic and social problems in Europe.

Then began the long list of atrocities carried out by Tito against his class enemies, faked elections, and close relations with Stalin. Tito was the most honoured guest at the funeral of President Kalinin of the USSR, and there were many Soviet advisors in Yugoslavia for the Secret Police and Military. None of this is at all surprising now that we know Tito was the NKVD officer in Moscow who denounced the pre-war Yugoslav leadership, and who subsequently mostly disappeared. Tito of course never intended to have free elections or a joint Royalist-Communist democratic government. As far as he was concerned he had won the civil war and the revolution had succeeded. He was even bold enough to shoot down a US aircraft in 1946. A US diplomat at the time labelled Tito ‘Moscow’s most faithful and conscientious collaborator’ but Stalin clearly thought he was going too far and could cause trouble with his plans to dominate Eastern Europe.

Then as we all know the Stalin-Tito love affair fell apart in 1948 when Stalin threw out his favourite son and in order to survive Tito needed western arms and aid. $30 million of gold in the US was released and over the next decade $2 billion of loans were made, all to keep Tito from going back to the communist fold. In addition the US re-equipped 30% of the Yugoslav infantry with their equipment.

From then on, despite mostly on the brink of bankruptcy, Tito rode the waves of the Cold War between his inbuilt belief in communism, his love of luxury, and maintaining dictatorial power. The greatest benefit he got from the West was that no one challenged his version of history; the policy in the West was to keep quiet about his crimes. Even parts of Churchill monumental ‘History of the Second World War’ had references toned down. Ernest Bevin the British Foreign Secretary in the late 1940s said ‘Tito may be a scoundrel but he is our scoundrel’.

Clearly as far as the West was concerned he could not be trusted. Stalin clearly thought so too!  Stalin had expected him to take orders as a good NKVD man. Also the West knew he had to be paid from time to time, but not trusted. Play up to his vanities but never believe his motives.

But what if he had been honourable and a true patriot?

Alternative history is a game played from time to time by historians. From the above track record it would be stretching the imagination to expect a man like Tito to keep his promises, to play fair, to have humble needs, not to double-cross, not to cheat on his wives and girlfriends, or believe in justice.

But let us suppose he had made a deal with Mihailovic to fight joint campaigns and not wage a Bolshevik revolutionary war, that he had proper elections, that he stopped at the old borders, and he had not rushed off secretly to Moscow. There would have been ‘no breach of faith’ as Field Marshal Alexsander called it.

Of course first of all we should assume that there would not have been the killings that revolted the West nor would US planes have been attacked.

There may even have been a landing on the Istrian coast in 1944 and a drive by the Allies to Vienna which may have stopped the division of Europe.

Marshall aid would have gone to Yugoslavia and the country’s economy developed in a normal way. Perhaps Tito’s communists would have been even seen as democrats.

A littler far-fetched, I agree, as he was Stalin’s man, but from the Slovene perspective Yugoslavia would have been seen to be a better ally than Italy, and there would have been a good chance that all Slovenes would have been united  by the return of Carinthia and Trieste to Slovenia. Maybe plebiscites would have been needed but even that chance was lost  because Tito was Stalin’s man.

Sadly as Churchill is reported to have said at a private party at the end of 1945:

‘During the war I thought I could trust Tito. He promised me to observe the agreement he had concluded with Subasic, but now I am well aware that I committed one of the biggest mistakes of the war.’

So Tito undoubtedly betrayed Slovenia over Trieste and probably Carinthia too. Revolution and collaboration with Moscow were more important to him. He was after all an NKVD officer.



A sad epilogue is that 20,000 Triestini, 10% of the population, left between 1954 and 1961, of which 90% went to Australia, mainly to escape the antagonism and persecution ( See the book Trieste goes to Australia by Gianfranco Cresciani)

This is a translation of Keith Miles’ article in the Slovene Journal Demokracija, 3.1. 2013.

Other articles in the series: